Is There a Clash of Civilizations?

Was World War II a "Clash of Nationalities"?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 3 2006 3:07 PM

Is There a Clash of Civilizations?

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Dear Mr. Kagan,

I am delighted to receive your observations, both because of your extremely kind and generous comments on my book Identity and Violence and because of the interesting and engaging questions you have put to me.

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I am pleased, of course, that you do not disagree with my thesis on the importance of a person's various affiliations and associations and the resulting multiplicity of identities that any human being has, nor with the need for reasoning and choice in determining the priorities over them in any particular context. But you ask the powerful question of who, in "the Muslim world," is "standing up and demanding to be seen as more than simply a Muslim?" You point out that you missed in my book a deeper explanation of this failure. And on the general subject of a supposed "clash of civilizations," while you accept my rejection of that thesis (I am very encouraged by your support on this), you also make the extremely interesting point that "there often seems to be so little evidence to contradict the 'clash of civilizations' explanation of our era." I agree that it does "often seem" that the general thesis of "civilizational clash" fits the ground reality very well. But does it really?

As you know, my book is very concerned not only with the multiplicity of our identities, but also with the way the illusion of a solitary identity, increasingly defined in terms only of religion, has been used to cultivate violence in the world. The so-called Islamic terrorists have used this weapon with great effectiveness. But to interpret that effectiveness as proof that there really is an inescapable clash of civilizations would be like constructing a thesis of an irresistible "clash of nationalities" on the basis of the observation of the ground reality of the two huge world wars of the 20th century. To consider another analogy, to see in the supremely bloody Hutu-Tutsi violence of a decade ago the "proof" of the inescapability of a "Hutu-Tutsi clash" would be to ignore not only how that violence was deliberately cultivated, and also ways that, with appropriate development of political interactions and civil society, such fostered violence can be resisted and overcome, as it increasingly is. Similarly, the ground reality of the Holocaust is no evidence that the gentile Germans are doomed to be inescapably Nazi.

Indeed, Western parochialists and Islamic extremists have, I fear, an implicitly shared involvement in arguing for the primacy of a person's religious identity, leaving a person no room for entertaining the demands of other affiliations and associations. And yet other commitments have flourished. For example, business has grown in the world across the barriers of regions and cultures, wherever the opportunities have existed and have not been stifled, focusing on a different kind of economic identity. Interestingly, anti-big-business movements have also grown across regional and cultural boundaries and have led to one of the most global movements in the world, under the somewhat deceptive name of "anti-globalization movement." Belief in religious separation and the allegedly inescapable hostilities linked to it has to come to terms with the existence of other powerful forces related to other identities—economic, political, social, linguistic, and many others. The theory of an overarching "clash of civilizations" not only has to face the difficult problem of explaining so many different types of movements in the world today, it would not be able to provide much of an explanation for some of the most prominent political developments in contemporary history, such as the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, which happened despite the fact that they shared the same religious identity (more than 100 million Bengali Muslims supported—and fought for—the assertion of a Bengali identity in addition to their Muslim identity).

Let me also consider my own country, India. Samuel Huntington describes it simply as a "Hindu civilization." That description may seem a little odd since India, with its 145 million Muslims, has more Muslims than almost any other country in the world, including those that are firmly placed by Huntington within "the Muslim civilization." But Huntington is right that the vast majority of Indians come from a Hindu background—more than 80 percent, in fact. And yet, if you look at the three principal governmental positions in India, none of them is held today by a Hindu: The president is a Muslim (Abdul Kalam), the prime minister is a Sikh (Manmohan Singh), and the leader of the ruling party (Sonia Gandhi) is a Christian of Italian ancestry. Not only is this situation the result of a democratic electoral process, you will detect no sense of the country being in a state of explosion for this reason. This despite the fact that there have been systematic attempts at cultivating the divisions of religious identity, often quoting Huntington himself. There were even killings of minorities in the riots of Gujarat in 2002, which ended up, in the Indian general elections of 2004, as a major vote-loser for the party that seemed implicated in that violence.

But what about Pakistan, which is so often seen as just a hotbed of Islamic militancy? The crucial issue here is the role that has been played by the undermining of democracy, particularly secular democracy, in Pakistan by a sequence of military leaders. It is also important to see how the civil society in Pakistan has tried to offer its own resistance through courageous pursuit of non-sectarian causes, such as the development of a powerful human-rights movement, reliant largely on the support of the civil society. One of the most significant recent developments in South Asia is the emergence of bold and powerful media in Pakistan. Not only do you hear very little about this in the Western press: Reports of clash get priority over positive civil engagements, despite the immensely larger number of people who are involved in construction rather than in destruction.

Before I end, may I reverse our roles and ask you a question? We may have taken, I believe, somewhat different positions on the wisdom of the military intervention in Iraq (I was—and am—firmly against it). But I do agree with you on the crucial importance of democracy in the world and also on the ability of people outside to help the development of democracy in a country that is currently deprived of it. (I am convinced, for example, that the economic boycott of the apartheid-dominated South Africa helped to pull that regime down.) We also agree that after the intervention, the occupation forces "failed to provide adequate security and stability to rebuild the country." I would also argue that the neglect of the civil society and of the need for public reasoning (with a free and inclusive media) has been one of the major problems. But what about the military intervention itself? I would be very curious to know how you see that question now.

Again, very many thanks for your very kind and extremely perceptive comments and questions.

Yours,
Amartya

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